US 7250865 B2
An object tracking system is provided for tracking the removal of objects from a location and the replacement of the objects at the location. The system includes a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag attached to each of the objects to be tracked and each tag has an antenna. When activated, the RFID tag of an object transmits a unique code identifying the object. A storage unit is provided at the location and the storage unit has a plurality of receptacles configured to receive objects replaced at the location. Each receptacle has an associated antenna for activating the RFID tag of an object in the receptacle and receiving the radio frequency transmitted code of the object. The antennae of the system can be capacitive plates for conveying the radio frequency transmissions through capacitive coupling or inductive loops for conveying the transmissions through inductive coupling. A computer-based controller is coupled to the antenna of the receptacles for receiving transmitted codes and determining based thereon the absence or presence and location of objects within the storage unit.
1. An object tracking system for tracking the removal of objects from a storage unit and the replacement of the objects at a storage unit, said object tracking system comprising:
a non-contact ID tag attached to each of the object to be tracked, each non-contact ID tag including an electronic storage device carrying a stored code associated with the object corresponding to the non-contact ID tag, each of said non-contact ID tags being capable of transmitting its stored code;
a plurality of receptacles in said storage unit wherein each receptacle is configured to receive a single object and to allow each single object to be selectively removed from each receptacle;
at least one non-contact sensor associated with a receptacle for polling the non-contact ID tag of an object in a receptacle and detecting the resulting transmission by the non-contact ID tag of the stored code associated with the object;
selection circuitry coupled to said sensor for selecting said sensor, said sensor, when selected, detecting the stored code associated with an object if an object is present in the associated receptacle and detecting no code if an object is not present in the associated receptacle; and
a controller coupled to said sensor for receiving stored codes detected by said sensor and for determining, based on the received codes, the absence of objects removed from the location and the presence and location within the storage unit of objects present at the location;
said non-contact ID tags being adapted to transmit their stored codes to said sensor.
2. The object tracking system of
3. The object tracking system of
4. The object tracking system of
5. The object tracking system of
6. The object tracking system of
7. The object tracking system of
8. The object tracking system of
9. The object tracking system of
10. A system for tracking the removal and replacement of a plurality of keys from a storage unit, said system comprising:
a plurality of key tags each for association with one or more keys to be tracked;
a non-contact RFID tag on each of said key tags, each non-contact RFID tag storing an identification code associated with its key tag and being adapted to transmit said identification code via radio frequency transmission without electrical contact with said storage unit;
a storage unit, said storage unit being adapted to receive and to allow selective removal of said key tags and keys attached thereto;
at least one radio frequency sensor at said storage unit for sensing identification codes transmitted by RFID tags of key tags in said storage unit; and
a controller coupled to said at least one sensor, said controller being programmed to receive identification codes from said at least one sensor and to track removal and replacement of key tags and thus keys in said storage unit based thereon.
11. The system of
12. A key tag for use with a system for tracking the removal and replacement of a plurality of keys from a storage unit, said key tag comprising:
a front face and a rear face and a fastener for securing one or more keys thereto; and
a non-contact RFID tag attached to said key tag, said non-contact RFID tag storing an identification code associated with its key tag and being adapted to transmit said identification code via radio frequency transmission without electrical contact with said storage unit.
This application is a continuation of U.S. patent application Ser. No. 10/614,590, filed on Jul. 7, 2003, now abandoned; which application is a continuation of U.S. patent application Ser. No. 10/122,507, filed on Apr. 15, 2002, now abandoned; which is a continuation of U.S. patent application Ser. No. 09/797,338, filed on Mar. 1, 2001, now U.S. Pat. No. 6,407,665; which is a continuation of U.S. patent application Ser. No. 09/393,223 filed on Sep. 9, 1999, now U.S. Pat. No. 6,204,764; which application claims the benefit of the filing date of prior filed U.S. Provisional Patent Application Ser. No. 60/099,954 filed Sep. 11, 1998.
This invention relates generally to object tracking and control systems and more particularly to systems for tracking and controlling access to and disposition of objects such as keys.
Many objects have intrinsic value or have value because they provide access to other valuable objects. For instance, jewelry and coins have inherent intrinsic value while keys, such as keys to vehicles, have value because they provide access to other valuable objects, namely automobiles and trucks. Further, access to and control of some items, such as narcotics for example, needs to be monitored, tracked, and controlled to assure against unauthorized access or assure that proper and appropriate accesses catalogued. There is a serious need to be able to track, catalogue access to, and control such objects in a way that is reliable, simple to implement, and virtually tamper proof.
In the past, a variety of systems have been implemented to track and control objects. In the case of keys in an automobile dealership, for example, pegboards have been used to keep track of the keys as sales persons, maintenance personnel, and others remove keys for access to vehicles. Generally, sign out sheets are used to log the check-in and checkout of such keys. Obviously, such a manual system of tracking has numerous shortcomings due in large part to the very real potential of human error and forgetfulness in carrying out the sign-in and sign-out procedures.
More recently, automated computer controlled key tracking systems have been implemented for tracking, for example, vehicle keys at car lots and keys to the apartments of apartment complexes. One such system particularly applicable to the present invention is the key tracking system disclosed and claimed in my U.S. Pat. No. 5,801,628 the disclosure of which is hereby incorporated fully by reference. In the disclosed system, referred to herein as the “Key Track” system, keys to a vehicle are attached with a rivet or the like to a thin plastic key tag or card having a depending tongue. The tongue carries a small button shaped electronic touch memory device, which electronically stores a unique code. The tongues of the key tags are configured to be insertable in an array of slots formed in a top panel within a storage drawer. A printed circuit backplane is disposed beneath the top panel and is provided with a plurality of pairs of metal contacts, each pair of contacts being aligned with a corresponding one of the slots in the top panel. When the tongue of a key card is inserted in a selected one of the slots, its touch memory device is engaged by the corresponding pair of contacts.
A computer or microprocessor or microcontroller based controller is electronically coupled through a communications matrix to the contacts on the backplane and periodically polls each pair of contacts, preferably several times per second, to determine the presence or absence of a touch memory device and thus which slots contain key cards and which do not. More specifically, if no information is received from a particular pair of contacts when polled, it is determined that the slot corresponding to the pair of contacts is empty. When a slot contains a key card, the touch memory device of the card responds to the poll by transmitting its unique code, from which the identity of the particular key attached to the card can be determined through a table lookup. In this way, the absence or presence and location in the storage drawer of key cards and their associated keys can be noted by the controller each time the array of contacts are polled. If a card present in a slot on a prior polling is absent on a subsequent polling, then the controller notes that the card and its key have been removed from the storage drawer. Conversely, if a key card is detected in a previously empty slot, the controller notes that the card and its key have been replaced in the storage drawer The removal and replacement of keys is therefore continuously monitored.
An access feature requires an authorized user such as a sales person to enter an ID code to unlock and access the storage drawer. When the history of removal and replacement of key cards and their keys is combined with other information, such as the time at which cards are removed and replaced and the identities of the persons who accessed the drawer and times of access, access to the keys in the drawer can be controlled and a detailed tracking log can be created. This Key Track system greatly decreases instances of lost keys, reduces the time required to find checked-out keys, and generally provides automatic tracking and control of the keys, and thus, to a large extent, controls and tracks the vehicles to which the keys provide access.
While the Key Track system described above has proven extremely valuable in the tracking and control of keys, it nevertheless has certain problems and shortcomings inherent in its design. For example, the backplane of the system, which may contain dozens of upstanding metal contacts for engaging the electronic touch memory devices of key cards, can be relatively complex and labor intensive to fabricate and requires precision in the placement and orientation of contact pairs. In addition, foreign items such as loose keys or other small metal items that may inadvertently be dropped into or hang through one of the slots in the top panel can and sometimes do short the contacts on the backplane, resulting in the potential for false key tracking logs or, in extreme cases, error conditions that can result in degradation of the integrity of the entire system.
Furthermore, because the reading of the codes stored in the touch memory devices relies upon physical contact between the touch memory devices and the electrical contacts on the backplane, resistances that can result from corroded contacts or dirty touch memory devices can also result in false and degrading readings. Additionally, the electrical contacts sometimes become bent or sprung so that they fail to make proper contact with the touch memory devices of key cards placed in their corresponding slots. These and other related problems all result from the requirement in the Key Track system that object detection and identification relies upon physical electrical contact between a set of electrical contacts and an electronic touch memory device.
Thus, even though the Key Track system has proven very useful and successful, there exists a continuing need to enhance the system in such a way that the problems mentioned above are addressed in an efficient, economic, and reliable way. It is to the provision of such enhancements and improvements that the present invention is primarily directed.
Briefly described, the present invention, in one preferred embodiment thereof, comprises enhancements and improvements to the Key Track system disclosed in my U.S. Pat. No. 5,801,628 to address the problems resulting from the requirement of physical electrical contact for detecting and identifying objects. More specifically, the invention comprises an object tracking system for tracking the removal of objects from a location and the replacement of the objects at the location. In the preferred embodiment, the objects to be tracked are thin plastic cards to which keys can be attached or small containers into which keys or other items can be placed. Keys may also be attached to the outside surfaces of the containers if desired. It should be understood, however, that the present invention is applicable to a wide variety of objects other than these. The key cards and containers that are the “objects” in the present disclosure are exemplary only and represent the best mode of practicing the invention, but are not intended to impose limitations on the invention. In this disclosure, the term “objects” is used in the context of the preferred embodiment to refer to the key cards and containers in combination with the keys attached thereto. It should be understood, however, that the “object” should be interpreted to any item that is desired to be tracked and monitored with the system of this invention and is not limited to key cards, containers, keys, or any other particular item.
An ID tag is attached to each of the objects to be tracked by the system and each ID tag includes electronic storage means carrying a stored code associated with the object to which the ID tag is attached. If another item, such as a key, is attached to the object, then the code also identifies the other item. Each ID tag is adapted to transmit its stored code by means of non-contact transmission such as, for example, radio frequency transmission, when the ID tag is appropriately activated.
A storage unit is provided at the location with the storage unit having a plurality of receptacles configured to receive objects when objects are replaced at the location and to allow the objects to be selectively removed from the storage unit when the objects are to be removed from the location. A sensor is associated with each of the receptacles in the storage unit for activating the ID tag of an object in the receptacle and, in turn, detecting the resulting transmission by the ID tag of the stored code associated with the object. Selection circuitry is coupled to the sensors for successively selecting the sensors. Each sensor, when selected, detects the stored code associated with an object if an object is present in the corresponding receptacle and detects no code if an object is not present in the corresponding receptacle.
A computer or microprocessor based or other appropriate controller is coupled to the sensors through a communications link for receiving stored codes detected by the sensors and determining, based on the received codes, the absence of objects removed from the storage unit and the presence and location within the storage unit of objects present in the storage unit.
In the preferred embodiment, the ID tags attached to the objects are radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, which are adapted to transmit their stored codes through radio frequency transmission when the tags are appropriately activated. Each of the ID tags includes an antenna for transmitting its stored code and, in one embodiment, for receiving data to be stored or acted on by the RFID tag. Each of the sensors includes an antenna for activating the RFID tags and receiving stored codes transmitted thereby and/or convey data to the RFID tags. In one preferred embodiment, the antenna of each RFID tag comprises a pair of capacitive plates located on the object and the antenna of each sensor comprises a pair of capacitive plates positioned to align with the capacitive plates of an RFID tag when an object bearing the RFID tag is placed in the corresponding receptacle of the storage unit. In another embodiment, the antenna of each RFID tag comprises an inductive loop antenna coupled to the RFID tag and the antenna of each sensor includes a corresponding inductive loop positioned to align with the loop of an RFID tag when an object bearing the RFID tag is inserted in a corresponding receptacle of the storage unit. In either case, the RFID tag of an object in a receptacle of the storage unit is activated when radio frequency power is supplied to the antenna of the sensor corresponding to the receptacle and the code of the RFID tag is detected by the sensor and conveyed through the communications link to the controller. Thus, detection and identification of objects within the storage unit is accomplished through non-contact radio frequency transmissions.
The object tracking system of the present invention provides a number of advantages over systems requiring physical electrical contact for detection and identification of objects in a storage unit. For example, since codes are conveyed not through physical contact but rather through radio frequency transmission or through modulation of a radio frequency signal, foreign objects that may fall into the storage unit do not result in shorted contacts and have little effect on the integrity and reliability of the system. Further, when this invention is applied to an object tracking system including a panel with receptacles and a backplane, the antenna of the sensors can be formed on the backplane in inexpensive and reliable ways such as, for example, through common printed circuit board etching techniques. The sensors can be formed on the back side of the backplane if desired to protect the sensors further. Thus, not only is the system more reliable than prior art systems, it is also more economical to produce. Finally, because the detection of codes is accomplished through radio frequency transmissions, problems associated with interference or cross-talk in the data matrix that must be addressed with systems employing physical contacts are much less prevalent and, even where present, are simpler to address. Also, since no physical electrical contact is required for detecting codes, problems associated with corroded or bent contacts or dirty touch memory devices are eliminated altogether. As a matter of fact, the present object tracking system functions as well in commonly encountered dirty or corrosive conditions as in clean conditions. Finally, since the RFID tags have no polarity requirements as do physical contacts, the objects can be placed in the slots in any orientation.
Thus it is seen that an improved object tracking system is now provided that successfully addresses the shortcomings of prior systems wherein physical electrical contact has been required for object detection and identification. The system lends itself to a wide variety of applications where it would otherwise be difficult to employ systems requiring physical electrical contacts and is economical, robust, and reliable. These and other features, objects, and advantages will become more apparent upon review of the detailed description set forth below when taken in conjunction with the accompanying drawings, which are briefly described as follows.
The present invention will be described in detail within the general context of a key or small item tracking system. In such a system, keys to vehicles are attached to key cards (or placed in or on the outside surface of small containers), which are checked out from and replaced in a centrally located storage unit. Each key card is provided with an RFID tag. The storage unit preferably has a top panel formed with an array of receptacles for receiving the key cards. A backplane is disposed beneath the panel and has an array of sensors for detecting and identifying key cards located in the receptacles of the storage unit. This configuration is discussed in detail in my issued patent, which provides background for the discussions that follow.
Even though a preferred embodiment of the invention is as a key or small item tracking system, it should be kept in mind during review of the detailed description that follows that the invention has a wide variety of uses wherever there is a need to track access to and location of objects. In many such configurations, the RFID tags may be attached directly to the objects that ultimately are to be tracked, although in the preferred embodiments, the “objects” to which the RFID tags are attached are key cards or containers and the keys attached thereto are the items ultimately to be tracked. The particular context within which the invention is described should therefore not be considered to be a limitation of the invention.
Referring now in more detail to the drawings, in which like numerals refer to like parts throughout the several views,
RFID tags such as those illustrated in
While the embodiment of
In the passive RFID tag 71 illustrated in
The system of
The capacitive plates 87 and 88 are positioned on the backplane 84 such that they align with the capacitive plates 54 and 56 attached to an object inserted in the corresponding receptacle 83. That is, when the object is inserted in the receptacle such that its bottom side rests on the backplane, the capacitive plates 54 and 56 attached to the object align with and are disposed adjacent to the capacitive plates 87 and 88 of the respective sensor. While the capacitive plates 87 and 88 are shown on the top surface of The backplane in
One of the capacitive plates 88 of each RF sensor is connected to radio frequency ground 94 while the other is coupled, through a radio frequency switch 89, to a radio frequency source 93. Each radio frequency switch 89, in turn, is connected to a row and column selection bus and all the row and column selection busses are electronically coupled to the matrix selector. The matrix selector is configured to address the row and column of an RF sensor in the array of sensors to activate that sensor for receiving codes of an object, if any, in the receptacle corresponding to the sensor. By “selection” it is meant that a radio frequency carrier signal is applied to the plates of the sensor through the switch 89. One implementation of this selection or switching or polling process is described in more detail below.
The storage unit 81 is indicated generically in
The object tracking system shown in
By sequentially polling the sensors in relatively rapid order (preferably several times per second) the controller is able to log when objects are removed from the storage unit, when they are replaced, and also the location or receptacle within the storage unit where an object is located. More specifically, if an object is detected in a receptacle during one polling cycle and is not detected in a subsequent cycle, then the controller notes that the object has been removed from the storage unit. Alternatively, if no object is noted on a polling cycle and an object is detected on a subsequent polling cycle, then the controller notes that the object has been replaced in the storage unit and that it is located at the receptacle corresponding to the sensor that detected the object. As with prior Key Track systems, this information can be compiled to create logs, reports, control commands, alarm generating signals, and otherwise for tracking and controlling access to the objects.
In general, the circuit of
While not illustrated in
When it desired to activate or select the sensor at location I, the controller, through the matrix selector, sets the row select 109 for row 1 to a low state and the column select 92 for column 1 to a high state. The low state of the row select 109 causes the N-channel MOSFET inverting switch 112 to set the row trace 113 to a high state. Similarly, the high state of column select 92 turns on transistor 121, pulling the column trace 114 to a low state. This causes diode 119 to be forward biased, which turns the diode on and connects capacitive plate 87 of the sensor at location I to the radio frequency source 106. Thus, the sensor at location I is activated, i.e. is connected to the RF carrier signal. However, the sensors at the other locations are not activated because their diodes are maintained in a reverse biased condition since only transistor 121 at column 1 is turned on.
Capacitor 118 forms a high pass filter that blocks DC voltages of the selection matrix from being transferred back to the RF source while allowing radio frequency modulations from an RFID tag to be transferred back for interpretation by the RF encoder/decoder 66. Inductances 117 and 124 form RF chokes that isolate row and column selector circuitry from the RF signals. If an object bearing an RFID tag is present at location I, its code will be conveyed to the RF encoder/decoder and then transmitted to the controller 64 in the manner previously described. If no object is present at location I, no code will be received. The controller can thus determine the absence of an object at location I or the presence of an object at location I.
The process is repeated sequentially for sensors at locations J, K, etc. by activating the appropriate row and column trace to forward bias their diode switches and connect them to the radio frequency source 106 and the encoder/decoder 66. Preferably, as mentioned above, the sensors at the various locations are polled continuously at a relatively high rate of several times per second. In this way, the controller can easily determine the time at which objects bearing RFID tags are removed and replaced at the storage location.
With this configuration, it will be seen that when the key card 111 is inserted into the receptacle 131, the capacitive plates 22 and 23 of its RFID tag 19 align with capacitive plates 134 and 141 of the sensor. Activation of the RFID tag and conveyance of its code can thus be accomplished as described above.
The card 156 bearing RFID tag 166 is inserted in a receptacle 170 formed in the top panel of a storage unit. The unit's backplane 171 is provided with an upstanding daughter board 172 corresponding to the receptacle 170. The daughter board 172 carries the antenna of the RF sensor in the form of a looped antenna 173 that is connected to other components of the system through traces 174. When the key card 156 is inserted in the receptacle 170, its inductive loop antenna 168 aligns with the loop antenna 173 on the daughter board 172. Radio frequency energy can then be transferred to and from the RFID tag in the same way as with the capacitive RFID tag described above. However, in this embodiment, the radio frequency energy and information carried by modulations thereof is conveyed through inductive coupling between the two loop antennas 168 and 173. Otherwise, the system functions in the same way as the previous capacitively coupled embodiment.
The stem 184 of the object 181 is inserted through an opening 189 in a top panel to replace the object in a storage unit. A backplane 191 is provided with a sensor post 192, which projects upwardly from the backplane 191 and is aligned with the receptacle 189. The sensor post 192 is provided with a sensor in the form of an inductive loop antenna 193 that wraps around the post and that is connected to other components of the system through traces 194. When the object 181 is inserted through the receptacle 189, the sensor post 192 is received in the socket 186 in such a way that the inductive loop antenna 193 of the sensor is disposed within and concentric with the inductive loop antenna 187 of the RFID tag. Communication between the system and the RFID tag is then possible as previously described. One advantage of the embodiment of
Another configuration of the inductively coupled object tracking system is shown in
In use, the controller 234 sequentially polls the antennae 232 in the drawers of the filing cabinet (or in several filing cabinets if desired). When the antenna of each drawer is activated, the RFID tags of file folders 229 within the drawer are activated and transmit their unique codes to the antenna 232. The controller 234 then detects these codes and can determine from the codes received, which files are in the drawer. In addition, when polled rapidly such as, for example, several times per second, the controller can determine when files are removed from drawers, when they are replaced, and which drawer they are in when replaced. This information can be used in a variety of beneficial ways, including the elimination of structured filing systems, which can be cumbersome to maintain. With the object tracking system of the present invention applied to a filing cabinet, a user need only ask the controller where a file is located and the controller can indicated which drawer of which cabinet contains the file. If the file has been checked out by another individual, the controller can inform the user the identity of the person who has the file. These and other advantages of the application applied to a filing system are possible.
The invention has been described herein in terms of preferred embodiments and methodologies. More specifically, the invention has primarily been described in terms of a system for tracking keys or other small objects that can be attached to a key card or enclosed in a container. While these are preferred applications of the invention, it will be understood that the invention is fair from limited to the specific embodiments and applications discussed herein. Virtually any types of objects that need to be tracked can be tracked with the present invention as long as they can be provided with RFID tags and a storage receptacle for receiving the objects. Thus, a wide variety of additions, deletions, and modifications might well be made to the embodiments illustrated herein without departing from the spirit and scope of the invention as set forth in the claims.